July 2010

Website Design Before And After – One Of Our Latest Projects

I’m utterly crazy about makeovers. Hook me in with a dull room or a dilapidated home that’s about to get a new lease on life, and you’ve got my eager attention. Those simple touches of new paint on the walls, a new front door or some pretty flowers in pots on the porch satisfy some beauty-and-order seeking part of me in a deep, delectable way. Add bigger windows for better light or knock out walls to make a living space flow better and I’ll cheer for you with gusto. Small wonder, then, that I embrace website redesigns with such keen pleasure and am always proud to show off the results of my work when we give a deserving website a much needed makeover.

When Joanne Comito of Dreaming Earth Botanicals asked us to review her company’s website, we identified several key functional issues that most deserved to be corrected. Our approach is always going to put human usability in the driver’s seat as the most critical requirement of a good website, dovetailed with good basic SEO. But this project offered an appealing opportunity to give love and attention to visual presentation, too. Dreaming Earth Botanicals is a respected purveyor or fine aromatherapy products – an inventory that hinges on customers’ sensory perceptions. Here is a group of users who will especially appreciate a warm and beautiful shopping experience, and beyond our goals of solving functional problems, we wanted to make sure that this website’s new look would speak to the pleasant sensibilities of its user base.

Dreaming Earth Website Before Redesign

Above is a screenshot of DreamingEarth.com before. This is what I’ve come to think of as a binder paper website. Great care has been put into creating content, but the container of the thing contained has yet to branch out beyond vanilla. I embrace simplicity, but being unique and memorable in your presentation is critical to distinguishing yourself from competitors. Dreaming Earth Botanicals had yet to take steps to apply a distinct look to their website – something that users would recognize a second time. Their logo was cramped and fuzzy, their imagery was small and somewhat pixelated and overall, the site indicated to me a lack of confidence. A design should never look hesitant. It should look like you ‘mean it’, that you’ve jumped in with both feet, believe in yourself and are ready to do business. I wanted the new website design to exude bold confidence.

Dreaming Earth Website After Redesign

My little screenshot gives you some idea of the changes we’ve made, and I hope you’ll click through to the website to see the new design in action.

In addition to coming up with a more vibrant visual presentation, we needed to fix a couple of important errors in the original design. We were not altering any of the contents of the site; simply creating a new look for the overall website, creating an onsite WordPress blog to replace their off-site Blogger blog, and giving special care to the layout and contents of the site’s homepage. Additionally, we engaged to resolve troubles with the website’s navigation. Here is a summary of what we needed to do.

- As I wrote about in a recent post, old websites tend to develop navigational issues over time. New things get added, other things get left off and forgotten and the original system of navigation that was carefully planned out when the site was first built gets lost in the shuffle. Dreaming Earth had ended up with various menus that contained links to some pages, but other important pages were missing. Additionally, pages had been put all together in one long list, with no compartmentalization of different types of content. Navigation is the heart and soul of any website – I can’t overstate this. By bringing all important pages into a single navigation menu, broken up into comprehensible chunks headed with such titles as ‘Learn’, ‘Shop’ and ‘Service’, users can now navigate the portions of the site they are most interested in. Getting this figured out and set up was a big accomplishment.

- Dreaming Earth Botanicals vends a wide array of aromatherapy products, but their main focus is on essential oils. Previously, the website had a javascript dropdown box menu containing the list of links to their essential oil product pages. When I explained to Joanne Comito that this might be presenting serious obstacles for both search engine bots and differently abled users, she was eager for a change. We determined that bringing a 3 column layout into the design would provide a very satisfactory solution, creating a permanent righthand navigation menu of just the essential oils. With this new layout, customers are made abundantly aware of the fact that this website has an astonishingly broad inventory of essential oils that can now be accessed easily from all pages of the website, rather than being hidden in a tiny dropdown box that was easy to overlook. Prime focus being given to these key products may also enable the bots to start indexing more of these important pages.

- Another SEO fix that was badly needed related to an interesting portion of the original website that had been created to allow the business owner to add What’s New-type content to the homepage. Having fresh content on your homepage is a great idea, but unfortunately, the original designer had decided to couch this within a frame, essentially banning the bots from being able to read and index this content. We got rid of the frame and handed the keys over to Joanne, showing her how to update the content within a couple of HTML tags in the code of the homepage. Now she can make What’s New announcements on a regular basis and the Googlebot can see that she’s doing so. A super improvement!

- Using our copywriting skills, the homepage content was extensively re-written and re-organized to highlight key details about the business and important sections of the website. It now reads in a welcoming, informative tone and gives a sense of the experience and vibrancy of this terrific company.

In conclusion, though DreamingEarth.com is a large website, the work of resolving the above issues and creating a new professional look for the business was by no means overwhelming. As a website designer, the most daunting aspect of being brought in to redesign a site is usually having to comprehend how the original was created. Dreaming Earth Botanicals employs a webmaster who makes updates for them, and he was able to help us figure out where various files were located. Once we understood the basic setup, we were able to work efficiently and confidently on the project and feel really happy with the end results of this work. Here’s what Joanne Comito has to say about her experience of working with us:

“Working with Miriam and Liam at Solas Web Design was such a pleasure, and such a breath of fresh air compared to other experiences we’ve had in the thorny world of web design and SEO. They were clear, direct, fast and obviously knew exactly what they were doing. I appreciated how patient and helpful they were with us, guiding us through the process and helping clarify what we wanted and needed for our business. They always kept us up to date on their progress, and were very responsive to questions and suggestions. We couldn’t recommend them more highly–they are just as knowledgeable and professional as they appear. They looked at our business as a whole (not just at our website) which helped them create a site that both search engines and customers like better.”

According to Joanne, user response to the new design has been extremely positive and with the better organization we’ve put in place, we would definitely expect to see an increase in time on site and sales. This project was a pleasure from start to finish and one we’ll be adding to our portfolio with real satisfaction!

3 Clues It’s Time To Redesign Your Website

Website Redesign

At left is the redesign we’ve just completed for a very valued client of longstanding: Dawn Perry of CapeCodTreasureChest.com. We’ve been working with Dawn for years now, with a redesign of her original website being our very first work with her. Cape Cod Treasure Chest saw more than a 125% increase in sales after that first redesign and over the past few years, we’ve engaged in two subsequent redesigns to keep things organized and fresh. We are really pleased with this latest look for this great small business and when we presented the new look to Dawn, she didn’t hide her feelings from us:

OMG!!!! Love, Love, Love it!!!!

I can’t believe you’ve taken my simple request and turned it into something so great, even better than I had ever dreamed of….. You are the most fantastic designer.

I love the simple ease and flow of the page….. It was just so cluttered before…. It just makes so much more sense now….. I think this 3 columne format really is the way to go… So glad you suggested it!!!

I love how you used the dolphin tile and made it look like a wave with our name in the top picture….. So cool!!!

I can’t wait to see how this new design turns into more sales! I know my customers are going to love it…..

How’s that for music to any hardworking web designer’s ears? A sonata, indeed!

I thought it might be helpful to other small business owners if I gave a couple of pointers that will help you determine whether it’s time to consider a re-design of your website. Some people live by the mantra, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I can see the sense in that, but if a client like Dawn Perry had decided she was content with the ‘unbroken-ness’ of her first website design, she would never have seen that huge sales increase, nor the annual increases her company has continued to enjoy with each passing year, due to her commitment to running her business as well as she can, coupled with our ongoing diligence. Sometimes not being ‘broke’ just isn’t a good reason to stand still when a little activity can bring new, tangible rewards. If you’d like to reach for something beyond ‘good enough’, let’s take a look at my 3 Clues It’s Time To Redesign Your Website:

Clutter And Confusion
If you have any interest in architecture, you will doubtless have seen old American houses, built in a specific style such as Victorian, Arts & Crafts or Art Deco, onto which subsequent owners have added new additions and elements over the years; odd paint choices, that unbalanced second floor, that disharmonious new roof line, strange new trims, rooms that jut out at unpleasing angles, none of which were part of the original master plan when the house was first built. Websites can be very much like this. When a good website designer sits down to create her master plan, she’s got all of the elements of the website laid out before her: page count, top product focus, important content, photography, color preferences, etc. Out of this array, she creates a well-balanced system of navigation, layout and look for the website that encompasses all elements in a pleasing, functional manner. On the day of launch, everything is picture perfect.

Then time passes. New content gets created. Different products trend towards greater popularity, demanding greater focus. New product pages come into being. The client begins engaging in new marketing techniques such as blogging, video marketing or some other form of Social Media and attention needs to be drawn to this. Piecemeal, the webmaster/designer works to bring all new things into the existent design and for awhile, this works fine, but at some point, so much that is new has been fit in here and there that the overall cohesion of the original master plan is getting lost. That 10 product business that did well with only a top navigation menu now has 30 products and would really do better with a vertical side nav bar. That virtual business has just opened a physical office and needs to start putting robust energies into Local Search Optimization. That bare minimum original site now has 20 new pages of awesome content, deserved of a menu of its own.

If you look at your website and see that clutter and confusion have grown as a result of too many new elements having been squeezed in here and there over the years, it’s time to start from scratch with how all of this new ‘stuff’ is organized so that it is being presented in a balanced, usable way with prominence being given to the new things that have become important.

Rendering Issues
When we started our own company, a vast percentage of our clients’ customers were still using 800 width monitors. Except for a few hairy experiences with fluid width designs, we typically designed the main contents of websites to be about 760 wide. In 2010, something like only 2% of most of our clients’ customers still have these old monitors and on the ever-wider screens, those old sites look as funny as skinny neck ties from the 1950′s. At best, a vast deal of screen space is being lost. At worst, odd repeats of background images result, making a very pasted-together, unpleasant presentation of the business.

Take a look at your website on the newest computer monitor your can access and see how it’s displaying. If you don’t like what you see, a re-design that makes the most of the space and renders correctly on major modern browsers such as Firefox, Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Safari is in order. While you’re at it, if your business has any type of mobile component, it may be time to consider having a separate stylesheet created for mobile devices. Times are a-changin’ fast.

Staler Than Moldy Bread
It is important to virtually every type of business to demonstrate alacrity – that quality of being on the ball, current, brisk, positive and ready to help. Brick-and-mortar concerns repaint their signs, wash their windows and refresh their stock and displays as a sign of business being alive and thriving. Cobwebs and dust-covered merchandise don’t inspire a feeling of lively commerce taking place. By the same token, tired color schemes, badly pixelated imagery, crusty old fonts and way-outdated design techniques including repeating wallpaper backgrounds, black-as-midnight drop shadows and that heavy canvas Photoshop texturizer effect can send a signal to your Internet users that your business has stagnated since you decided to take it on the web. I’ve run into some truly amazing examples of set-and-forget website design that could act as a showcase of website design principles circa 1995, and while it can be funny to see these kinds of things, having people laugh when they come to investigate your business is probably not what you’re shooting for.

Very often, though, a well-maintained website isn’t suffering from this type of extreme design antiquity – rather, it has just grown a little stale. I’m by no means tied to the idea that every site must have the latest web 2.0, 3.0, 40.0 look, for the sake of embracing fads. I like unique designs that show thought and care for user comfort, regardless of trends. But, certain developments have taken place over the past 15 years which truly do improve both the aesthetic quality and basic human usability of website design and being progressive in these areas is smart.

For example, the shift from the once-common light text on a dark background to dark text on a light background is a definite improvement; so much easier on the eyes. A leaning towards larger fonts has also created improved readability, in my opinion. Siloed menus are another example of a good technique for dealing with unwieldy amounts of content, creating shorter, more focused menus for specific areas of interest within a site. Better use of shorter paragraphs and appropriate header tags to break up copy into meaningful portions is yet another positive improvement I’ve seen. Some changes seem so small, they may go largely unnoticed, but the new ease they provide in the user experience is what counts, even if the changes are far from bold or flashy.

Compare your site to other websites you admire that have a really current look and function well. What is creating that good experience? How is the content being organized and presented? How memorable is the design, the logo, the masthead, the imagery? Would you immediately recognize and remember it if you saw it again, or does it look like everything else? Are your users being engaged? Do you ever receive positive comments about your design? Our clients do all the time and they write to us to tell us this, proudly. Could a bad design be adversely affecting your sales and other conversions? Could a new design refresh older customers’ interest in your business? Also of great importance, could a new design refresh your interest in your business?

On occasion, we have recommended a new design for existing clients, but for the most part, this work originates in the client coming to us saying that he (or his customers) is feeling a little bored with his site. There’s a growing feeling that things need to be changed up a little, given some polish and care. Our efforts can then make the difference between the ho-hum of business as usually and the ‘OMG!!!!’ of delight in turning on the computer every day to get cracking with everything you do to pursue success in the web business world. Maybe you just need some cool new fonts to modernize your look. Maybe it’s time to totally rework your navigation menus to bring order out of chaos. Maybe you’ve got to bid a fond farewell to that clip art logo you got during the Clinton Administration and go for gold with something gorgeously, professionally designed. Your re-design needs may be large or small, but your goal will be the same: to ensure that you are making the most of the opportunities the web is offering as a vehicle for doing business. Success and profits are waiting to be made – this I know – but your drive and determination are all up to you.

Copywriting For Causes – Getting People To Care

Copywriting for causes

I’m not sure how much has really been written on this topic in the SEO industry, so I thought I’d take a stab at it, as a writer who has published millions of pixels’ worth of cause-driven copy. You’re standing in interesting shoes when you take on the job of using language to call readers into an attitude of caring. Yes, in a sense, you are still wearing your salesman shoes…but you’re not selling a product; you’re promoting an idea in hopes that others will be moved enough by what you write to take some definitive action.

At left is a small ad I created some years ago for a worthy cause: a seaside community in a world-class tourist destination was attempting to stop the National Park Service from exterminating an entire population of very beautiful deer that had lived in the area for generations. This cause had built into it a million potential annual visitors to the region. Every year, huge numbers of tourists travel to this area to enjoy the wildlife and incredible natural setting. In addition, we had the year-round population, much of which was strongly devoted to the preservation of the deer.

Ultimately, we both succeeded and failed. The bureaucratic juggernaut that is the NPS refused to be swayed from their plans, despite formal pleas from the National Humane Society, Dr. Jane Goodall, state government officials and a host of local organizations; the lovely white deer are now all gone and I’m not sure I’ll ever stop smarting over this loss. On the other hand, the community effort, the bumper stickers, meetings, joint projects and showdowns have to be seen as a success. People truly cared, and we helped to encourage and facilitate this strong stand for ethics.

“Show Your Children The White Deer Before It’s Too Late.”

So reads the ad copy in my example, and it’s letting receptive individuals know that, “Oh, no, human beings are about to mess up something else that has been so nice. Yes, bring the children to this mystical seashore now if you ever want them to see the white deer, because soon it will be too late.” To anyone who holds in any way to the seventh generation principle, there is a strong call present here to ensure that today’s children, and tomorrow’s children, can experience something unspoiled for them. So much of environmentally-related copy hangs on this point.

During the white deer campaign, we promoted a number of related messages, suggesting that no one would want to vacation in a fancy hotel in the middle of a bloodbath; that no one would want to take hikes on trails littered with carcasses; that no one would feel safe walking in a national park full of hidden sharpshooters. We really worked hard to paint a very clear picture of the undesirable aspects of the extermination. Gratifyingly, so many people responded with heartfelt opposition to the killing of the deer and though our work did not save the deer, I believe that it strengthened the community and encouraged individuals to weigh important moral questions in their minds. In the end, I believe that’s what cause-driven copy is all about: creating a more thoughtful and ethical world.

Let’s spend 50 seconds taking a look at one of America’s best remembered environmental advertisements, sometimes called the ‘Crying Indian’ campaign:

The combination of visual and vocal content in this old commercial still works on me to this day. Despite the considerable controversy that has come to surround this famous ad (questions as to whether this commercial stereotyped Native peoples and other issues), as a person with indigenous roots, I want to jump out of my chair every time I see it. It gets to me. It really does. What does the spoken copy say?

“People start pollution. People can stop it.”

There’s the call to action: stop polluting. It may be a little non-specific – there was no poll to take, no petition to sign, no tie-in to a specific agency or plan – but what a jumping off point this ad was for further thought about the way we live, the way we litter, the way we pollute, the way we’ve blown it! That image of the peaceful (if stereotyped) Indian man, living at one with nature, contrasted with the foul ugliness of urban pollution, coupled with the call to action, really stood out in our minds as a society, to the tune of this video being uploaded in the 21st century to YouTube repeatedly and being viewed thousands and thousands of times. I consider this commercial to be one of the best examples I’ve ever encountered of successful empathy-based marketing. How’s that, you ask? Let me explain.

Empathy-based Marketing
In many cases, when we write sales copy, our job is to identify the needs of the user and solve his problems. Got warts? We can fix that. Need a new washing machine? We can fix that. Need your dog walked? We can fix that. The user needs help and the business owner offers the solution.

By contrast, cause-driven marketing frequently relies on enlisting the user to help solve the problem facing a community, organization or society as a whole. The user is the active element in the scenario – not the business owner. The user’s empathy must be engaged to the point where he understands how this problem is affecting some thing, some group, some area. Think of how Americans have responded to national disasters in the past decade, offering money, food, shelter, volunteer time and other forms of assistance to victims after reading about their plight and seeing it on TV. Sympathy is involved to a certain extent, but empathy is the really strong force that enables someone living in California to say of disaster victims in Lousiana, “How horrible. How would I feel if this happened to me and my family?” I would suggest that it’s that ability to call up and envision personal loss and suffering that drives the most meaningful participation where causes are being worked for.

In the ‘Crying Indian’ video, we follow the Indigenous gentleman through the forest, along the pristine river, in the quiet, and then share with him the onslaught of smog, noise, traffic and garbage. We’re not just watching the man…we have become the man and are sharing in his shock and distress. Via empathy, we have become one with his feelings and his cause and we are made ready, through this clever assemblage of pictures and words, to solve his problem…which, of course, turns out to be a problem for all of us. Whether you are talking about pollution, crime, illiteracy, disease, poverty or any other issue affecting an individual or small groups, through the experience of empathy, thinking people come to see the truth in the concept that what affects one of us affects us all. If we are moved deeply enough, conscience then causes us to take action, and a thorough campaign will lay the actions out in the easiest possible manner for the participant.

To anyone who is becoming involved in marketing for a cause, I would suggest taking a careful look at the video and considering how and why it is so moving. Start considering how empathy fits in with what you are doing.

It’s My Party
In 1963, the #1 hit on pop music charts in the USA was a Leslie Gore song which I’m almost positive you’ve heard: It’s My Party. The song describes the angst of having your boyfriend leave in the middle of your very own party with a girl named Judy. Apparently, kids (and pop music charters) couldn’t get enough of this song. Oddly, the refrain of the song is self-absorbed in the extreme:

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to
Cry if I want to
Cry if I want to…

Well, waaah-waaah. Go right ahead and cry. What a whiner!

Ah, but wait. It’s the punchline of the refrain that turns the whole thing around:

You would cry too if it happened to you.

And, voila, we have the empathy bit. You would cry too if that dreamboat boyfriend of yours, Johnny, ditched you for that stupid brat, Judy, at your very own party. How would you feel? You’d feel terrible. Suddenly, all of America was able to picture itself standing in the singer’s shoes, being humiliated at a party. In fact, I guess everyone hated Judy so much after this episode of pop history that Gore had to come back with an update in the form of the song, Judy’s Turn To Cry in which Johnny changes his mind and returns to the heroine’s side. Take that, Judy! Frankly, I’ve never known why the girl would have wanted Johnny back – he sounds like a jerk – but I bet that America, having had its empathy engaged in the whole situation, felt relieved.